See the San Diego Zoo Like a Local: Inside Tips for a Great Visit with Kids
San Diego is a gorgeous place full of unique and interesting things to do with the family— and the San Diego Zoo is at the very top of the list. The grounds are beautiful and the animal exhibits are well-tended. You'll always learn something new, or see an exotic animal you've never seen before. It's no wonder that the San Diego Zoo is widely considered one of the best zoos in the US. That said, the zoo is huge. And kids get tired. So when you are planning a visit, you need a game plan. Luckily, we have one!
If you're planning a visit to San Diego, you won't want to miss our tips for a great visit to the San Diego Zoo with kids. And if you're looking for some recommendations for where to stay in San Diego, take a look at the Best Kid-friendly Hotels for a San Diego Family Vacation, plus the 50 Best Things To Do in San Diego (Besides the San Diego Zoo).
What To Do at the San Diego Zoo
The first tip is something that you do before you even step foot in San Diego County: Download the San Diego Zoo App, where you can enter the ages of your kids for suggested activities. You can also "build a plan" for your visit and add animals to your kids' wishlists. The app acts like a field guide with information on each animal on exhibit. It also includes the daily schedule of activities, performances, and special events you won't want to miss.
The zoo grounds are fairly extensive, so you'll want to prioritize the top places you'd like to visit. Make a list, and then use the zoo map to plan the best route for your family. The San Diego Zoo is a place where back-tracking can really wipe the kids out. The grounds are also hilly, and walking uphill with a stroller or carrying a toddler can zap your energy fast.
The secret to seeing everything on the kids' wishlist in one day is to walk through the exhibits that have footpaths only, saving the rest which can be viewed comfortably from a tour bus!
Ride the Skyfari over treetops and animals! Photo courtesy of Christina Simmons for San Diego Zoo
Alaska Airlines Skyfari East
Our family always makes a beeline for the aerial tram. Nothing drums up more excitement than riding on a tram that takes you over treetops and animals to the far reaches of the Northern Frontier, where the polar bear is! You also avoid the initial crowds at the entrance this way by starting your adventure at the back of the zoo instead of at the entrance. Plus, kids have "seen" everything from the air, so if any of the areas are too crowded to explore, you can remind your kids that you already saw those things, you just saw them from the perspective of a bird!
Learn about the elephants at the Elephant Odyssey. Photo credit Jaimie Wells, San Diego Zoo
After exploring the Northern Frontier, where you can visit the polar bear and reindeer, we like to walk through the Elephant Odyssey to see the elephants and learn about their care.
RELATED: Secrets of the LA Zoo: Tips for a Great Visit with Kids
This exhibit of the flora and fauna of Africa can only be viewed on foot. Photo credit Jaimie Wells, San Diego Zoo
From there, we walk through Africa Rocks, an exhibit of the flora and fauna of Africa which can only be viewed on foot and was designed to be seen up close. Hitting this spot earlier in the day helps beat the crowds.
Let your kids pick which trail to explore in Treetops Way. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Zoo
As you exit Africa Rocks, there is a trick to getting up the hill to where the monkeys are. The path is fairly hidden behind some trees. You'll find a set of stairs at Map Point 13 that will take you up to Treetops Way through the aviary. Assuming you have no strollers and do not need to worry about accessibility, take the stairs up to Owens Aviary and meander through the paths until you reach Treetops Way. On this hill are several footpaths—Orangutan Trail, Aviary Trail, Tiger Trail, and Monkey Trail—all of which are amazing to explore. Follow the map carefully and you won't get lost. Let your kids pick which trail to explore by choosing the animals they most wish to visit.
Visit the Outback, where the koala bears are. Photo credit Jaimie Wells, San Diego Zoo
After thoroughly exploring the areas around Treetops Way, we like to make our way back to Front Street. From here, you can hop on the bus tour for a 45-minute ride, or you can take a short walk to the Outback where the koala bears are. (We usually pick the bus tour, as everyone's little legs are very ready for a break.)
The Urban Jungle is adjacent to the Outback. The animal exhibits are along a convenient loop, making it easy to see everything without having to backtrack.
Where to Eat at the San Diego Zoo
Because the zoo is so large, it's important to know where restaurants are and decide where you might want to eat before everyone gets too hangry. Bring plenty of snacks and water, in case hunger strikes when you're not near a restaurant, or the lines are particularly long.
This one is handy because it's located right near the entrance if you need to grab a bite to eat when you first arrive. Sydney's Grill offers burgers, BBQ, salads, ice cream, cocktails, and craft beer.
Sabertooth Mexican Grill
Sandwiched between Elephant Odyssey and Africa Rocks is the Sabertooth Mexican Grill. It's a fairly large place with plenty of umbrella-covered seating. Offerings include tacos and burritos, crisp salads, and wraps.
The outdoor ice cream stand at the Hua Mei Cafe is perfect on a hot day. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Zoo
Hua Mei Cafe
This cafe has an Asian theme, fitting in nicely with the bamboo of the Asian Passage exhibits. You'll find Asian cuisine here, along with burgers, pretzels, and kid's meals. This is a great place to recharge and refresh before you head up the hill to see the monkeys and birds.
Busy Bee Cafe
For family meal deals, pizza, gourmet burgers, hand-dipped corn dogs, ice cream, and draft beer, stop by the Busy Bee Cafe. It's located near Alaska Airlines Skyfari East.
The table near the waterfall at Albert's Restaurant is a lovely break. Photo credit Jaimie Wells, San Diego Zoo
If you'd like a full-service dining experience, Albert's restaurant offers chef-inspired dishes and a craft cocktail bar. You do need to make the trek to eat there, though, since it's located at the back of the zoo in the Lost Forest. You can get there through the footpaths of Treetops Way or take Bashor Bridge from Elephant Odyssey.
Alternatively, get some casual fare right next door to Albert's Restaurant. Treetops Cafe serves pizzas, Italian-style cuisine, wraps, salads, and beer.
Special Events and Programs at the San Diego Zoo
For something special during October, the entire zoo transforms from 5pm to 9pm Friday through Sunday in October. You'll want to check the website before you go; this seasonal event can change from year to year. A DJ comes for live music with Halloween-themed decorations. Characters dress in costumes and acrobats perform. There's a bubble dance party, glow-in-the-dark hula hoops, and if you're 11 years old or younger, you can come dressed up in a costume yourself! Included in the price of admission.
Check the website for the schedule of specific activities and entertainment. In December, Santa Claus comes, as do other live performers. This year they had Aurora, an immersive experience with 3D projection mapping, lights, sounds, and a glittering wonderland. Included with admission.
This is the San Diego Zoo's summer celebration! Live music, acrobatic performances, shows like Call of the Night and Dr. Zoolittle Explores Africa, and giant puppet processions are all part of the fun. Check the website since hours can vary every summer. Included with admission.
Welcome to the San Diego Zoo! Photo courtesy of the San Diego Zoo
Kids Free October
Every year the San Diego Zoo offers free entry to children ages 11 and younger. The free entrance includes everything you normally get when you buy a ticket. One ticketed adult must accompany up to 5 kids, who all get in free.
There are half-day and full-day camps available for kids to explore habitats, discover wildlife, and have some summer adventures. From Classic Camp programs to Art Camps, there is something for every grade level from K-12. Even if you don't live in the area, this is a great place to visit and rent a vacation home. Send the kids to a half-day of camp so you can rest, and then spend the afternoon exploring the area together as a family!
InternQuest gets kids up close and personal with the animals. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Zoo
Zoo Corps and Zoo InternQuest
This is perfect for teens interested in gaining experience in wildlife conservation. Teens can explore careers for people passionate about animals and the environment. The summer sessions for Zoo Corps are open to teens ages 13-17 while the InternQuest is for students in 11th and 12th grades only.
The app acts like a field guide with information on each animal on exhibit. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Zoo
Know Before You Go
- The best time of year to visit the San Diego Zoo is in the fall, winter, or spring. The weather is cooler and you don't have to deal with the extreme afternoon heat that can come in the summer in Southern California. That said, you should know that the zoo grounds are very shady. Most of the paths, especially where the monkeys and birds are, wind through forested areas.
- I highly recommend bringing umbrella-style strollers if you have toddlers. If you can collapse your stroller, you can take it on the aerial tram, tour bus, kangaroo bus, and up any stairs. However, if you do end up bringing or renting a large stroller, the zoo has stroller parking spots outside major ports like the tram entrances and the bus tours. You'll want to carry your valuables with you, though, because nobody supervises the strollers.
- Remember that included with the price of admission, you can take the bus tour, a 40-minute ride in a double-decker bus around the zoo to see all the animals along the bus road. Save yourself (and your kids) the walking, and see these animals from the bus instead! I like to save the bus tour for the very end of the day when everyone is too tired to walk.
- Use the Kangaroo Bus that shuttles you from stop to stop. You might have to wait a bit for the shuttle, but if your kids have their heart set on seeing something on the other side of the zoo, you always have this option.
- Use the Aerial Tram. The line for the trip back from the Northern Frontier is usually very short. Some families like to take the kids over first, then one adult comes back to transport the stroller. You can also use the aerial tram to send the family quickly across the zoo if you're trying to make a scheduled performance.
- Parking is free. However, it can reach capacity during holidays, spring break weekends, summer, and winter break weekends. The zoo encourages guests to park in overflow parking at Inspiration Point, on the east side of Park Boulevard, between Presidents Way and the Balboa Park Activity Center. From there you can walk or take a shuttle, available in the parking lots by the Navy Hospital at the south end of Park Boulevard.
- To skip the lines, you can purchase tickets online and print them at home. You can also purchase through the app or at GoSanDiego. If you are planning a multi-day visit to San Diego with the intention of visiting other venues, look into package deals. Offers include San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and SeaWorld combos. A Go San Diego Pass, which allows you to choose from over 40 attractions, can be a smart way to save on ticket prices.
- Take advantage of October, when kids are free not only at the San Diego Zoo, but are also free at lots of other places in San Diego!
Visiting the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Tickets
The San Diego Zoo is located at 2920 Zoo Drive in San Diego. It is open seven days a week year-round—including holidays! Zoo hours change seasonally, so be sure to check the website before you visit. A range of tickets are available, starting at $52 for kids ages 3-11 and $62 for adults. Children under 3 are always free. Check the zoo's website for updates to hours and admission before you visit!